The Critter Conker: High Tech in the Garden of the Future

CHERYL LYON – Rob eyed the odd contraption with suspicion, rightly so, given his Scottish Grandfather’s weird sense of humour. Granddad had once entered a local parade dressed like a priest riding his bicycle backwards. A sign on his back read “Clerical Error.”

The contraption in front of Rob consisted of a big elastic band attached to the two prongs of a sawed off piece of the forks of one of Rob’s childhood bicycles. It was anchored to the railing of Granddads’ back porch and overlooked his vegetable garden.

“That’s not a sling…” but Rob was interrupted before he could finish his sentence.

“It’s my Critter Conker,” Granddad said proudly and Rob’s raised eyebrows shot up even higher.

“Your what?!”

“Ya heard me.”

“Explain, please,” demanded Rob.

“It’s the cats, son. And the squirrels. And now the rabbits! And last night, a racoon! Wha’s a man ta do?” he exclaimed, his Scottish homeland accent always showing up strongly when Granddad was roused. “They eat or dig up all ma hard work. So I’m gonna teach those little ***s a lesson.”

“You could kill them, Granddad!” sputtered Rob incredulously.

“Nah. Just warnin’ ‘em off. They’re only corks I’m firin’ to scare ‘em. And those cheeky squirrels have taken to buryin’ them, like nuts! “When I need ta sit for wee while, I bring ma cuppa to the control tower here and keep watch for ‘incoming,’” joked Granddad. Rob could only laugh in amazement at Granddad’s sense of humour in these difficult times of increasing food insecurity.

It was Labour Day parade time, and Rob had come around to find out if Granddad had anything in mind for it now that he’d turned his inventiveness to the vegetable garden he’d converted from his beloved rose garden. “I remember my own Dad’s Victory Garden back home in Edinburgh during the war. Had ta uproot all his prize roses to plant vegetables for the war effort. He looked right pained as he dug up them roses…” Granddad’s voice trailed off.

The growing crisis

While having tea, Rob’s thoughts turned to the serious matter of putting food on his own table this year, 2030. Grocery store prices had inflated rapidly, beginning in 2022, but incomes had failed to keep pace. Unusually variable and severe Canadian winters, caused by rare repeated El Nina events in the Pacific Ocean beginning in 2023, had brought – in a single season – both floods and droughts to the prairie “breadbaskets” of Canada and the US. Bread was selling at the local discount grocer for $10 a loaf.

Supply lines, broken by the unprecedented weather across the globe, and exacerbated by sea level rise, had diminished foreign imports, especially for out-of-season produce. Rob hadn’t seen a pineapple in three years. Almonds were almost a black market commodity. But grapes and peaches now grew on the some sunnier slopes of farms in southern Peterborough and Northumberland Counties.

Convoys, and so-called “freedom protests” became things of the past as the climate emergency worsened. Locally, demands and public demonstrations for civic action on local food security had become much more important. Local farmers walked in support of a particularly active coalition of urban food activists called Food Not Lawns. They walked silently. No carbon belching tractors or farm machinery. Fuel was too expensive to waste on that. Participants held images of withered fields, flags made of empty grain sacks, and placards saying “Food is a Human Right” and “You Can’t Eat Oil.” City and Township Councils constantly demanded more policy and financial help from the Province’s Minister of Agriculture and more powers delegated to local governments who were closest to the crises.

They rallied in front of city hall and county municipal offices, at farmers markets and grocery stores, and sang songs reminiscent of the previous century’s 1930’s Great Depression. Granddad showed up at these demos riding his electric motor scooter (though not backwards) with a sign on his back: “Never Too Old to Learn from the Young.”

Rob’s own lucrative career in real estate ended in the “Big Bust of ‘29” when a cascade of ecological catastrophes tipped the planet’s faltering natural equilibrium into an unstoppable cascade that speeded up new climate adaptation responses in every aspect of the economy and society.
His own daughter had led a local Selwyn group that had been arrested for chaining themselves to the council chamber podium to stop a new mega-subdivision on prime food land.

Granddad and grandson shared a warm embrace, and Rob left to bike home, riding down the new River Road scenic, separated, bike lane. Shortly, a familiar voice hailed him. Chioma, his neighbour on the road, waved him over to her gate. “Come see what we’ve been doing,” she said excitedly.

The Federal government had been assisting settlement of climate refugees from the heat-ravaged global South under the first International Food Security Agreement called Sharing Ground. This UN initiative brought agricultural knowledge and experience into the radically altered southern Ontario growing conditions due to northward-moving climate zones and weather catastrophes. Chioma had been a farmer in Nigeria. Now she was helping local growers adapt using her skills from a warmer agricultural zone.

Rob dismounted his bike and followed her to the rear of her home. A garden, no, a small farm, spread out before his astonished eyes. Four years ago, she had started renting out these four acres. “It’s our community farm!” Chioma beamed. “Five families learning to feed ourselves as much as possible,” she said. “It has been such hard work but we’re doing it!” Rob counted seven people at work on the land and small goat enclosure, and one in a greenhouse. A modest water mill gurgled near the greenhouse, generating just enough electricity from the river for the modest glass building. “All those years of such hard work are showing results,” sighed Chioma.

After a heart-felt congratulations, Rob picked up his bike to start home but stopped, his mouth agape, then a huge laugh. Sitting in an open window of the greenhouse was a Critter Conker! “Granddad always did have an entrepreneurial streak!” chuckled Rob.

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